The book I edited for Viva la Novella, The Bonobo’s Dream by Rose Mulready, begins with a boy called James talking to the birch trees outside his window. James touches the pane and puts a finger in his mouth, ‘tasting the glass’. The morning air is described as silver; his goldfish ‘sing in their bowl’.
The world of Rose’s novella unfurls in a series of images like this, each eerily echoing our own. On the surface, it’s a speculative-fiction tale about a dysfunctional family (and a bonobo). But the experience of reading the book lies in the small details that conjure a quasi-fugue state. You become the subject of its experiment with mood and perspective. It is – dare I say – like a dream you are asked to inhabit.
From my initial encounter with The Bonobo’s Dream, in a stack of more than a hundred entries, to sending its cover and typeset pages to the printer, my experience of editing the book followed a similar pattern. Like a dream, editing fiction demands that you suspend reality; the editorial process asks you at every stage to re-orient your compass and follow the work’s internal logic. The editor is a visitor to the world the writer has built from the ground up.
I first visited the world of Rose’s book in January, reading Viva la Novella entries in the cool comfort of Surry Hills Library. As venues for careful deliberation go, I could have chosen more wisely. From my perch looking out over Crown Street on Saturday mornings, I was easily distracted by the procession of over-groomed dogs and over-preened people that passed me by. But it was also an ideal place to know when a story seized my attention.
The manuscript for The Bonobo’s Dream was unlike anything else in the prize cohort. The prose was sharp-edged and colourful. Characters were revealed organically, and eccentrically. The novella played with tropes of sci-fi, dystopian fiction and magical realism. Here was a manuscript that took risks.
Judging a literary prize is a matter of chance and taste. Viva la Novella is also a platform for an emerging writer to work alongside an emerging editor to shepherd a manuscript to publication, so the learning process runs in parallel. I decided Rose’s writing was too beautiful, and I had too much to learn from editing her manuscript, that I couldn’t choose any other entry in my inbox.
The structural edit reminded me how humble the role of the editor is. There were many challenges: the world-building gradually became denser, as the chronology and imagery twisted more wildly out of shape. The story was written in free indirect style, and the intrusion of fantasies and flashbacks in the narrative destabilised characters’ perspectives.
Rose’s novella was powerful because it so subtly transported the reader from this slightly off-kilter place, where the air is ‘silver’ and goldfish ‘sing’, to somewhere even more otherworldly. In my manuscript assessment, I initially suggested making its jagged edges smoother, to build a ‘central narrative arc’, but I missed the trees for the forest. It was precisely the novella’s tangents and subplots that held the most striking moments.
At the same time as I was learning the value of balance and flexibility, I noticed a paradox taking shape in Rose’s approach to my edit as we moved from the structural to the copyedit. The more I raised queries and made suggestions, the more sure-footed Rose became in her responses (and her rejections) as they clarified her authorial intention. Yet she became more amenable to these changes even as she accepted fewer of them, as she realised I was working for her narrative and for her readers.
On the one hand, the copyedit was easy because the manuscript was very clean – Rose knows a comma from a semicolon. On the other, it was challenging because Rose invented words so I needed to infer their meanings: ‘whip-supple’, ‘gingerish’, ‘scritches’. Some characters spoke in a polyglot argot like the Nadsat that Alex and his droogs speak in A Clockwork Orange, referring to each other as ‘podruga’ and ‘dolcezza’. The world was crafted to be ambiguous: James’s goldfish have eyelashes and sing, for example, but we don’t know if this happens in his mind or not.
Because Rose adopted a free indirect mode, I was also never certain whether I was overcorrecting characters’ voices. James is revealed to have a chronic disease, and his parents use ableist language to describe his behaviour – yet they live in a eugenic world where all disease is theoretically ‘screened’ out, and this reality is mediated through their words. Add to that a few drug-withdrawal hallucinations, and the fact that characters repeatedly misread each other, and you have a recipe for a complex edit.
I was surprised by the number of guises I was required to take on as editor: number-one fan, devil’s advocate, lay reader, grammar police. At times I was being too dense for my own good, and at others far too pedantic. There were only so many times I could draw attention to errant adverbs, prepositions and swear words before I became a parody of an officious editor. You can only debate the spelling of ‘arse’/‘ass’ for so long before you feel faintly ridiculous.
Editing can seem like a futile endeavour, and I mean this in the most optimistic way. You can make a case for changing something as persuasively as possible, and you can second-guess an author’s intentions, but even if fewer than half of your suggestions are accepted, you can still have done a good job. The author can mark ‘stet’ – ‘let it stand’ – on your suggestion and you can choose to see it as another strike in an war of attrition, or a friendly return volley.
In the second chapter of The Bonobo’s Dream, James’s father, Aquila – an ageing artist – lies in the bath after a night of toiling over his latest work. He reflects grandiosely, ‘He is a genius … He’s a public treasure. The world would be littler, colder without him. Lives would be dimmer. He is that rare thing, a master.’
My experience with editing Rose’s book for Viva la Novella has shown me much the opposite: that the process of making art is not always a mark of singular, unadulterated genius. So often this process takes place in private rather than public – not a product of mastery, but of rigorous and unseen collaboration.
Winner of the 2016 Viva La Novella Prize
James and his family live in a beautiful house perched on the edge of a forest, within the curve of a giant dome. They circle each other like fish in a fishbowl.
Aquila – James’s philandering father, a renowned artist – prepares to unveil his latest and most shocking work. Suzanne, James’s mother, medicates herself against a rising tide of loneliness and memory. James seeks refuge from the adult world in his drawings and dreams.
But when James’s sister, Charity, returns home, she brings with her a visitor who will shake their fragile home to its foundations.
The Bonobo’s Dream is speculative fiction at its finest, probing the limits of what it means to be human.